Life on Earth Day

Earth Day is a opportunity to think big, as big as a planet, to let our thoughts unfurl into the still lovely expanses of this earth.  It is a chance to remember our kinship, all our relations, to this extended family of ours, Life on Earth.  It is an opportunity to remember that the most essential thing about us is that we are alive, as animals among animals, connected to plants, winds and rain.  And to contemplate what an astonishing blessing and mystery it is to be alive on a living planet. Continue reading “Life on Earth Day”

Birds, toddlers and the phoney laws of profit

Fine-mesh netting to stop birds nesting in trees and hedgerows has recently become a thing in the UK. Apparently it’s been going on for a few years in the leafy margins where town merges into countryside. But it seems to have particularly taken off this spring, and photos have been pinging around social media.

Why would anyone stop birds nesting? Well, if you’re a property developer with a planning application pending, you need to make sure any trees and hedgerows you might later want to uproot aren’t home to feathery families. If they are, it’ll be illegal to displace them and that’s going to cost you time and money. So there you go. A sound business rationale for something quite appalling.

This wouldn’t be the foulest trick in the annals of human mistreatment of other creatures, but it seems to have struck a chord with many people. One of those ‘what have we come to?’ moments signalling unease in the collective psyche. Something which draws back the veil on the price that nature pays for society’s glorification of profit.  Something which reveals how we distance ourselves not only from the rest of nature but also from our own true nature.

Tangentially related in my mind was a news story from London a few weeks ago. A housing estate south of the river featured a notionally communal play area divided by a hedge and wall. On one side, a spacious garden and grounds accessible only to tenants of the estate’s privately owned flats. On the other a narrow strip of playground serving the handful of social housing flats. The development project had been required to include a proportion of social housing units, and communal play provision for small children had been part of the original specification. But now the ‘private’ and ‘social’ children, who wanted to play together, were segregated. So there was a bit of an outcry.

The estate management company embarrassed itself for a few days in the media, defending the indefensible with proprietor’s logic packaged in pathetic PR guff. After all, they asserted, only the private tenants paid the service fees which maintained their children’s VIP play facilities. Yeah but no but. Instinctively we all know that toddlers are exempt from social hierarchy. And in this case, the walls came down. But as it is for toddlers so it should be for the rest of us. Human hierarchies are a social construct, abominable and completely artificial, but like detachment from nature they serve the profit principle well,  so we’re stuck with them. Until people suddenly see right through them.

These two stories are linked for me in that they help delineate what it is we’re up against and show me where to direct my energies. I can’t ‘fight’ climate chaos but I will go out of my way to defy the maladaptive hallucinations (to borrow Richard Reese‘s phrase) that have created and are still driving it. And I can do so in the faith that deep down all of us are on the same side. We’re not supreme over nature, we’re not supreme over each other, and we won’t be blinded by the phoney laws of profit. So there.

Taiwan and the Taming of Trash

Taiwan is a small country on a large-ish island, much blessed by nature, but struggling with the impact of a dense human population and rapid economic growth. Returning, for the first time in  more than twenty years, to a country that I had lived in, off and on, for about a year, was most interesting.  When I was last in Taiwan it was in the throes of its “Asian tiger” phase, and now has become, at least according to the taxi driver that picked my daughter and I up at the airport,  much less dynamic.  In the best tradition of the Taiwan citizenry, our driver was not at all shy about criticizing his government vigorously and with considerable sophistication.

Taiwan, also called the Republic of China (ROC) as opposed to mainland China, which is the People’s Republic of China (PRC), is always under more or less explicit threat of invasion or bombing by the PRC.  Taiwan’s leaders must  walk a thin line between asserting Taiwan’s right to exist as  a country, which assertion is backed, more or less discretely, by the US,  and provoking Beijing with too unequivocal and evident an existence.   Alongside the global geo-politics are the more local politics that  derive from waves of migration into Taiwan, with the indigenous  Austronesian people of Taiwan  having been displaced by successive sub-cultures of Han Chinese, as well as brief colonial occupations by the Dutch in the 17th  century and Japan in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Taiwan is fascinating agriculturally as it has admirably fertile, well-watered alluvial plains on its western coast, which are intensively farmed in small plots (by American standards) usually of only an acre or two – much rice, some taro, vegetables, and fruit orchards.  The excellence of Taiwanese plant breeding is a long-acknowledged fact in tropical agriculture circles.

Taiwan is a place that I found simultaneously delightful, disturbing and dystopian twenty years ago, and still find so, but for mostly different reasons this time around.   One thing that is not so different and, unfortunately, much worse is the air quality in Taiwan. There are many explanations for Taiwan’s terrible air quality, such as major petrochemical processing facilities with footprints in the thousands of acres,  large coal-burning electrical plants, trash incineration plants, the high tail-pipe emissions from the vast herds of scooters,  second-hand pollution from the factories in mainland China, and the fine dust blown up out of the river-beds in dry, windy weather.

On the plus side, I was astounded by their success in addressing solid waste – trash, basically – and in the cleanliness of the rivers and streams.  I have one unforgettably dystopian memory of Taiwan in the 1990’s, a scene glimpsed from the window of a bus –   a man wandering through a vast, burning wasteland of trash in the outskirts of Taipei as the sun struggled to rise through the smoke .  I also remember black, sulfurous waterways fouled with plastic trash, and the lovely white sand beaches of southern Taiwan littered by giant, surreal blocks of white styrofoam.  None of that now, at least that I could see on this quick week-long trip.  Quite an amazing feat, to change the everyday practices of everyday people so drastically, to effect social change so broadly, from big businesses to ordinary folks out in the country.   This has been done through sustained policy efforts  and clever design solutions over the last few decades that continue to evolve, energized by the demands of a politically active populace that demanded government action. Not only that but Taiwan  has developed an outstanding network of buses, metros, trains, and bullet trains.  Which is not to say that Taiwan has become an un-mitigated paradise – far from it –  but there is much to learn from their successes.

Last but not least, for all our taxi drivers critical comments about the stagnant economy, the incompetent government, and the worsening air pollution, there was in him and generally in the people of Taiwan a gentle pride in their country, a sense of collective responsibility for being kind to each other and of representing their country well that my daughter and I felt wistfully envious of and wished, of all things, that we could bring back to the US.

Food for a small planet

What do people eat across the world?  An excellent photographic answer to this question was provided by Californian photographer Peter Menzel who visited 24 countries for the book “Hungry Planet” .   The thing I found most interesting from his photographs was the difference in the percentage of whole food vs. processed food that make up diets across the world.  Americans eat mostly processed food and very little whole food. Continue reading “Food for a small planet”

When the water runs out

We were the ‘Land of the Free’ for the longest time,” state Rep. Regina Cobb (R) said recently at an Arizona Republican forum. “We wanted to be able to put wells where we wanted to. We didn’t want monitoring. We didn’t want metering. We didn’t want government coming in and telling us what to do. Until,” she told an audience where some wore “Make America Great Again” hats, “we saw the number of wells that were being put into the ground.” Continue reading “When the water runs out”

A bumble bee

I should have known it was coming, but like always in the heady rush of things you forget.

Two Fridays ago that beautiful morning, sunshine glinting off Cardiff Bay, a crowd of schoolchildren buoyant with homemade banners and placards outside the Senedd, smiling and laughing, singing and chanting. They were calling on the politicians inside – not one of whom showed their face – to listen up. They were calling on all adults everywhere to act their age and confront climate change. It was impossible not to be moved. Not to feel almost giddy with the sense of possibility. If you were there in Brighton, Sheffield, Berlin, Sydney or any of hundreds of other towns and cities where the same was happening that morning and in the days since, you’ll know what I mean.

You’ll also know what I mean if you’ve seen YouTubes of Greta Thunberg talking. A small, slight figure, softly spoken, reticent, not a hint of arrogance, holding an audience of big shots spellbound with her simple, honest, indignant message. For a moment the bluff and bluster that mark success in our crazy upside-down society melts away. The small, softly spoken person inside all of us holds sway. There’s hope. A new vanguard emerges, uncomplicated and instinctively true, seeking like a dog’s nose for some hint of a way forward. ‘We are nature defending itself’ said one of the schoolchildren’s slogans. I believe it.

But then you know how it is with feelings. You open your heart a crack, cognitive defences are down, and something else slips in to hijack your spirit.

Just over a week later we experienced the hottest February day ever in the British Isles, towards the end of what was the hottest February ever. 20°C across much of the land, quite a spike in a month where the average temperature in past years has been 7-9°C. The weather news was all about people sunbathing in city-centre parks and queuing for ice lollies at the beach. I briefly voiced my unease, in quiet conversation with a colleague in our over-warm office and was batted back with “the climate has always changed” and “we exaggerate our own influence”. There was no talk of climate in any of the sunny conversations around me that morning, only great weather.

At lunchtime I wandered out to the patch of bare ground across the supply road from the building where I work, and followed a muddy path into the strip of scrubby woods which lines the expressway. No question, the weather was gorgeous up there on the edge of the Brecon Beacons under an alpine sky. There was a bumble bee, fat and furry, zig-zagging among the slim tree trunks just above the leaf-fall. What’s going on, I thought. I’ve never seen a bumble bee at the turn of winter. What’s it looking for? Nectar, surely. Flowers. But there aren’t any flowers. None whatsoever. The trees are bare and nothing has poked through the mulch. Has it been warmed from its winter resting hole by the premature heat? I once read that bumble bees can manage only about 20 minutes of flight without a slurp of sugary energy. How much longer did this one have left? I placed a bite of apple on the ground close to the bee when it settled at the foot of a tree, but that spooked it and it promptly zig-zagged out of sight. The traffic roared. I pushed on, but the thought of the bee wouldn’t leave me. Imagine emerging on cue, primed by the eternal waltz of life for a summer of buzzing, to find yourself in a wasteland of dead leaves with 20 minutes to go. The image fused in my mind with a recurring scene from Tarkovsky’s Stalker: a man stepping slowly, expressionless, through a forest of blasted birch. Post-apocalypse? You never find out. But something bad.

And that’s how it happens. When you realise you’re feeling shit again.

The nadir, certainly, was this. One evening in the kitchen, after washing up and all that, the kids readying themselves for bed, I’m scrolling through Twitter and stop to watch a 10-minute video of Greta addressing an auditorium of European Union political elite. My daughter steals in behind me to watch over my shoulder and I’m pleased that she’s interested. Greta stresses the “less than 12 years to act” message, says there will be uncontrollable chain reactions if we don’t, and at that the daughter retreats upset, later to be found in a far corner of the flat, eyes red-rimmed and wide as she says to me: “…but it can be fixed, right? It can be stopped, yes?”

I can write this now because it’s passed, that stumble. I guess it comes in waves. I guess it’s like two sides of a coin. Some days what the kids are doing is hugely heartening. Other days it may just break your heart.

(Image from a postcard by Peter Reason)

On Love and Barley

I’ve had little time to think and write of late, as many small crises converge – from a sick elder dog to local political struggles to broken equipment to minor family exigencies, but there are always moments of grace amidst the scurrying and chaos, and one of the moments was seeing this photo in the bathroom of my veterinarian’s office.  I immediately titled this photo in my head: The Richest Woman in the World.  She is a dignified elder of native Hawaiian heritage.  She is poor in material things – her house is old and ramshackle, there are no window panes and the foundation is buckling. This kind of house was and still is common in the area where I grew up – South Kona and Ka’u – although nowadays most such houses are either fixed up or abandoned and slowly falling down.   But she is rich in a boundless peace and a connection to the world around her, she is rich in that native heritage and community which is so deeply place-based and family-centered, and she is rich in the companionship of  her skinny but contented cats who sit at her feet amid the dust of her yard.   It reminded me of Basho’s haiku:

Girl cat, so/thin on love/and barley.

One way or another most of us are prisoners

It’s a struggle for the new chick to peck its way out of the egg. We postmoderns still seeking truth have the same basic problem to solve, but the eggshell is less visible. Make no mistake though we are each inside the thing, struggling to get out, and find out what is on the other side. And then of course we each have to figure out what do next. The good news is that there are a lot of us.

image: Kornerstone Farms